Why Joe Biden's Middle East visit is unprecedented - analysis

Today, the privilege countries had of bashing and isolating Israel appears to be slipping away.

 A JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY worker hangs an American flag in Jerusalem, on Sunday in preparation for the upcoming visit of President Joe Biden. Let’s see America forever stand by allies like Israel, says the writer.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
A JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY worker hangs an American flag in Jerusalem, on Sunday in preparation for the upcoming visit of President Joe Biden. Let’s see America forever stand by allies like Israel, says the writer.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Israeli radio commentators were gushing with excitement about the visit of US President Joe Biden on Wednesday afternoon. A US presidential visit is a big deal in Israel – and it is always a big deal in the region as well.

However, there is something unique about this visit.

Not only is the tone unique, but the unprecedented nature of the visit – the president coming to an Israel that is in a time of transition to elections and a new government and then going to Saudi Arabia – is part of a new type of American visit to the region. 

The US has long relied on Saudi Arabia and Israel as key partners in the region. However, this visit is unprecedented because these two countries now increasingly look like they could have amicable ties in the future. It’s not clear what kind of Israel-Saudi ties may emerge, but foreign media reports have said that America backs an air defense pact for its partners in the region. This is a massive shift from the old days when the US would hold meetings with the Saudis or those in the Gulf, and with Israel – but not with both.  

Back in the 1980s, the issue of US-Saudi and US-Israel ties was far more controversial. While America saw both as key friends in relation to the Cold War, it didn’t see them on the same page. The prevailing view in those days, in some hallways of Washington, was that Israel and the “Israel lobby” was saddling itself in an alliance with the US that harmed US ties to the Arab world. The controversy of American sales of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s was a key symbol of this dispute.

 A view shows a banner depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Beirut, Lebanon May 18, 2022 (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS) A view shows a banner depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Beirut, Lebanon May 18, 2022 (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

Fast forward to the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War, and the controversy of Jerusalem’s relations with Washington was still clear. Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel in order to provoke the region.

However, consider several decades after that how Israel and the Gulf are growing closer by the day after the Abraham Accords; and how Israel can now work with those states on air defense and regional discussions. Israel is now in US Central Command's region of operations as well.

The Scud threat helped mobilize Israel’s air defenses and also US-Israel cooperation on them. Today, Biden is viewing the fruits of that labor, which include Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow and now the laser air defense revolution Israel is working on. 

This is what underpins the unprecedented nature of this visit.

It is about a true strategic partnership between Israel and the US.

It is also all about cementing the Abraham Accords. When the Biden administration came into office, some voices expressed concern that it might rush into a new Iran deal, have tensions with Israel and downplay the Abraham Accords.

These concerns were wrong. The new administration is building on the frameworks of the new normalization deals. There is no return to the negativism of the Obama years, when we heard about the “blob” and when some in DC were pushing for the US to work with Iran and ditch Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In addition, there is a lot of positive energy on Israel’s side. The Jewish state isn’t perceived as sabotaging the relationship anymore; there are no sudden announcements of new buildings in the West Bank to embarrass it. Today, the relationship appears deep and important. 

AT THE same time, America has appeared to shift away from some of its other partners in the region. The US-Egypt relationship isn’t what it was. Obama went to Egypt; Biden apparently isn’t going. Turkey-US relations are on the shoals. And what about US ties with the rest of the Gulf? Last year it left Afghanistan. So Biden's visit really shows how essential Israel ties have become for the US. This is now a multi-layered relationship, not one that is only pushed by some in Washington.

In the old days, there were always lobbies against Israel. There was always negativism in some sectors of Washington. It’s not so long ago that some were working to isolate Israel. John Kerry and his infamous quote about “no, no, no” regarding Israel's peace with the Gulf is an example. There were some who wanted Israel isolated because they wanted it to be dependent in order to have leverage over it and force it to make concessions.

They believed pressure would result in concessions – but they didn’t believe in also pressuring the Palestinians. Instead the Palestinians got privilege, and countries that had even made peace with Israel got the privilege of not making true peace.  

Today, the privilege countries had of bashing and isolating Israel appears to be slipping away.

This is because the days of countries being close with Washington and pushing antisemitism and extremism, and also funding terrorism may be ending. Of course, it’s never good to make too many positive predictions.

The key is to note that this visit is unprecedented because of how positive ties have become; how it cements the Abraham Accords; how it is not centered on one Israeli leader but rather on the strong group of leaders Israel now has; and also how it showcases the possibility of an Israel-US-Saudi bloc emerging in the region.

The recognition now in the US that Iran poses a major threat using drones and missiles is also clear: Add that to the unique aspects of Biden's visit.